The Many Faces of Cultural Organizing

Some great new publications on cultural organizing have come out recently, and they’ve helped me beef up my collection of cultural organizing definitions. If you look closely you can see some significant differences in how it is being conceptualized. Please share others if you know of them!

Definitions of Cultural Organizing

Arts & Democracy Project

“Cultural organizing exists at the intersection of art and activism. It is a fluid and dynamic practice that is understood and expressed in a variety of ways, reflecting the unique cultural, artistic, organizational, and community context of its practitioners. Cultural organizing is about integrating arts and culture into organizing strategies. It is also about organizing from a particular tradition, cultural identity, community of place, or worldview.”

Dudley Cocke, Roadside Theater

“Cultural organizing means putting culture, including its concentrated expression of art at the center of a social and political organizing strategy.”

Ebony Golden, Betty’s Daughter Arts Collaborative

“Cultural organizing is the strategic use of art and culture to shift policies and practices most impacting marginalized people…Practiced in communities since the beginning of time, cultural organizing honors the traditions, knowledge, practices, beliefs, ways of healing, cooking, worshiping that formed and maintained communities during times of abundance and prosperity as well as trauma and despair.”

Highlander Research and Education Center, Zilphia Horton Cultural Organizing Project

“The strategic use of art and culture to promote progressive policies with marginalized communities.”

Jan Cohen-Cruz, author of Engaging Performance, Theatre as Call and Response

“Various forms of artistic communication that provide a cultural dimension to community organizing in order to expand and humanize a social movement.”

Joe Street, author of The Culture War in the Civil Rights Movement

“When activists made an explicit attempt to use cultural forms or expressions as an integral, perhaps even dominant, part of the political struggle and when, during this process, attention was drawn to the intrinsic political meaning of the cultural activity.”

Tamejave Cultural Organizing Fellowship

“A community-building process in which people share cultural traditions and artistic expression with one another to build stronger, more active communities.”

The Culture Group

“A practice that fuses arts, culture, and political organizing. Cultural organizing seeks to organize politically engaged artists together into networks of collaboration, and form intentional, cohesive partnerships between artists and like-minded advocacy organizations, funders, and political campaigns. Cultural organizing builds the power and capacity of artists as a community, both as skilled workers whose labor has value and as essential partners in the progressive movement.”

What on earth is Cultural Organizing?

In the developing field of cultural organizing, definitions are changing, context-specific, and difficult to settle on. But the Arts and Democracy project offers a helpful working definition, which emerged from a workshop they helped to run in New Orleans in 2011. I thought I’d share it with you below. For the full reflection on the workshop, visit this blog post by Kathie Denobriga.

Arts and Democracy Working Definition of Cultural Organizing: 

Cultural organizing exists at the intersection of art and activism. It is a fluid and dynamic practice that is understood and expressed in a variety of ways, reflecting the unique cultural, artistic, organizational and community context of its practitioners.  Cultural organizing is about placing art and culture at the center of an organizing strategy and also about organizing from a particular tradition, cultural identity, and community of place or worldview.

Cultural Organizing Principles (working list):

o   Values multiple ways of knowing and being

o   Reconceptualizes power and power relationships

o   Prioritizes the centering of a creative process to address change

o   Addresses the issues people face in their communities

o   Moves people toward a place of action

o   Develops new leadership

o   Is based on the lived experiences of those participating

o   Deepens Analysis, i.e. gain knowledge, engage with theories of social change & liberation

o   Allows participants to bring their full self

o   Confronts oppression and privilege

o   Involve whole communities in a transformative process

o   Process and outcome are valued equally

o   Real emphasis on listening and story-telling as a method for generating knowledge and understanding

A (Short) Definition

As a big fan of stand-up comedy, I’ve become addicted to Marc Maron’s interview podcast, WTF. It recently aired its 200th episode, an interview with Maron himself, done by hilarious Boston-born comedian Mike Birbiglia.

In the midst of the interview — which is at turns funny, touching, and fascinating — Maron said something very profound about comedy, which I think could be extended to all art, and definitely to the world of cultural organizing.

His line was this:

“The two things that i think are essential with good comedy is that you actually make people see something in a different way, completely, or that you make people feel less alone.” (more…)